Masks That Unlock Creativity

One summer, in the creative writing evening classes that I teach at a junior college, I decided we would make masks. There was something magical in that mid-summer air that would spark creativity, express different emotions, and prime ourselves for writing about character.

I encouraged students to bring all sorts of recycled and new items to use and to share. I did as well - paper, cardboard, beads, lace, feathers, cornhusks, bottle caps, yarn, sequins, seeds, and shells.

Steve brought some colored paper. Frank brought a cardboard box about the size of a head. Al brought some of his exquisite handmade paper. Carol supplied ribbons and buttons, and Maureen, jars of colored popcorn.

First, I showed slides of masks from gallery shows - dark, earthy African masks, ancestor masks, totem animal masks; powerful and brightly painted Bainese masks; graceful Eskimo ones of fish and bear encircled with whalebone.

An array of contemporary masks made by artists featured two huge recycled masks from items forgotten in a garage (a rake, an old sled, hub-cap eyes); a white hand-held mask; a comical green-faced mask with bells (wires springing from the top); clay masks with native-American designs; and baked enamel masks with Aztec themes.

I briefly explained how masks in various cultures have been made of animal skin; wood adorned with shells, stone, or furs; and during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods the masks moved to the theater. today we may associate masks with Mardi Gras and Halloween, but they are part of our cultural and creative history.

I told my students that the masks we make should have the quality of surprise. They could be fantasy masks or dream masks; they might remind us of people we know, or resemble animals, insects, the sun or the moon.

Next I put on a tape of music that a student made for me once - melodies from all over the world, mostly East Indian and African. It set a tone that moved us away from our provincial southern California setting.

The room hummed with excitement, and the workshop began. We all started to look through the colors, textures, and shapes of materials spread on several tables. The images of the slides still flashed in our minds, and the world beat of the exotic music filled the room.

Soon everyone was intent on his or her creation. A few students moved around the room, borrowed scissors, and commented on a color, shape, or expression of a mask-in-progress.

And the mask faces started to come alive.

Steve created a mask that was broad and colorful - red, purple, and yellow - the colors blending and moving into each other. ``It's the way I feel now,'' he said, ``as if I'm growing, and my mind's expanding.''

Frank had created a powerful cardboard face from his box, painted bright orange, green, and black. The design was different on both sides, and could be hand-held on a large wooden stick.

At first he didn't like it. He didn't understand why this particular mask was the result of the evening's creativity. Then he realized it somehow represented two choices in his life - to move or to continue school at a higher level? The mask represented the dilemma. And now he felt ready to write about it.

Al, a gentle, soft-spoken man, made a mask with strength - almost a fierceness, although it was only paper. As a visual artist he often makes clay masks. He said the masks show different aspects of a person, different emotions, and help deepen his imagination, both in art and writing.

Carol's mask was white with black button eyes; the face encircled with a purple line. Colorful ribbons cascaded from the edges of the mask.

``The ribbons represent all the demands I have at the moment. I feel as if I am being pulled in many directions,'' she said. ``But the purple line around the mask is a color of hope that somehow, some way, everything does get done.''

Maureen turned her colored popcorn into a playful mask with popcorn eyes, a nose, and a mouth. She planned to use it around children.

I make masks each time I ask my classes, and I've gone through quite an array. Once I made a tiny mask-face in a little box. ``The magic face is always there, waiting and remembering, silently,'' I wrote around the edge, reflecting that creativity was always waiting inside.

Another time, I made what I thought of as a grandmother mask - pale face and white-cottony hair. After finishing it, I realized it was not so much my own grandmother as it was a reflection of my future, or perhaps the wise woman who may grow inside me.

When that mask-making evening in the writing class was over, we all took our creations into the black night. We had the beginning of some new idea we wanted to explore; some awareness, including the one that the characters we write about are all inside us.

We felt, too, a connection with all the other mask-makers from all those lands going back to ancient days. And we had experienced a sense of play, so essential to creativity.

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